String interpolation in Python and R

One of the things I liked about Perl was string interpolation. If you use a variable name in a string, the variable will expand to its value. For example, if you a variable $x which equals 42, then the string

    "The answer is $x."

will expand to “The answer is 42.” Perl requires variables to start with sigils, like the $ in front of scalar variables. Sigils are widely considered to be ugly, but they have their benefits. Here, for example, $x is clearly a variable name, whereas x would not be.

You can do something similar to Perl’s string interpolation in Python with so-called f-strings. If you put an f in front of an opening quotation mark, an expression in braces will be replaced with its value.

    >>> x = 42
    >>> f"The answer is {x}."
    'The answer is 42.'

You could also say

    >>> f"The answer is {6*7}."

for example. The f-string is just a string; it’s only printed because we’re working from the Python REPL.

The glue package for R lets you do something very similar to Python’s f-strings.

    > library(glue)
    > x <- 42
    > glue("The answer is {x}.")
    The answer is 42.
    > glue("The answer is {6*7}.")
    The answer is 42.

As with f-strings, glue returns a string. It doesn’t print the string, though the string is displayed because we’re working from the REPL, the R REPL in this case.

Detecting typos with the four color theorem

In my previous post on VIN numbers, I commented that if a check sum has to be one of 11 characters, it cannot detect all possible changes to a string from an alphabet of 33 characters. The number of possible check sum characters must be at least as large as the number of possible characters in the string.

Now suppose you wanted to create a check sum for text typed on a computer keyboard. You want to detect any change where a single key was wrongly typed by using an adjacent key.

You don’t need many characters for the check sum because you’re not trying to detect arbitrary changes, such as typing H for A on a QWERTY keyboard. You’re only trying to detect, for example, if someone typed Q, W, S, or Z for A. In fact you would only need one of five characters for the check sum.

Here’s how to construct the check sum. Think of the keys of the keyboard as a map, say by drawing boundaries through the spaces between the keys. By the four color theorem, you can assign the numbers 0, 1, 2, and 3 to each key so that no two adjacent keys have the same number. Concatenate all these digits and interpret it as a base 4 number. Then take the remainder when the number is divided by 5. That’s your check sum. As proved here, this will detect any typo that hits an adjacent key. It will also detect transpositions of adjacent keys.

Note that this doesn’t assume anything about the particular keyboard. You could have any number of keys, and the keys could have any shape. You could even define “adjacent” in some non-geometrical way as long as your adjacency graph is planar.

Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) check sum

VIN number on an old car

A VIN (vehicle identification number) is a string of 17 characters that uniquely identifies a car or motorcycle. These numbers are used around the world and have three standardized formats: one for North America, one for the EU, and one for the rest of the world.

Letters that resemble digits

The characters used in a VIN are digits and capital letters. The letters I, O, and Q are not used to avoid confusion with the numerals 0, 1, and 9. So if you’re not sure whether a character is a digit or a letter, it’s probably a digit.

It would have been better to exclude S than Q. A lower case q looks sorta like a 9, but VINs use capital letters, and an S looks like a 5.

Check sum

The various parts of a VIN have particular meanings, as documented in the Wikipedia article on VINs. I want to focus on just the check sum, a character whose purpose is to help detect errors in the other characters.

Of the three standards for VINs, only the North American one requires a check sum. The check sum is in the middle of the VIN, the 9th character.


The scheme for computing the check sum is both complicated and weak. The end result is either a digit or an X. There are 33 possibilities for each character (10 digits + 23 letters) and 11 possibilities for a check sum, so the check sum cannot possibly detect all changes to even a single character.

The check sum is computed by first converting all letters to digits, computing a weighted sum of the 17 digits, and taking the remainder by 11. The weights for the 17 characters are

8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 10, 0, 9, 8 ,7 ,6, 5, 4, 3, 2

I don’t see any reason for these weights other than that adjacent weights are different, which is enough to detect transposition of consecutive digits (and characters might not be digits). Maybe the process was deliberately complicated in an attempt to provide a little security by obscurity.

Historical quirk

There’s an interesting historical quirk in how the letters are converted to digits: each letter is mapped to the last digit of its EBCDIC code.

EBCDIC?! Why not ASCII? Both EBCDIC and ASCII go back to 1963. VINs date back to 1954 in the US but were standardized in 1981. Presumably the check sum algorithm using EBCDIC digits became a de facto standard before ASCII was ubiquitous.

A better check sum

Any error detection scheme that uses 11 characters to detect changes in 33 characters is necessarily weak.

A much better approach would be to use a slight variation on the check sum algorithm Douglas Crockford recommended for base 32 encoding described here. Crockford says to take a string of characters from an alphabet of 32 characters, interpret it as a base 32 number, and take the remainder by 37 as the check sum. The same algorithm would work for an alphabet of 33 characters. All that matters is that the number of possible characters is less than 37.

Since the check sum is a number between 0 and 36 inclusive, you need 37 characters to represent it. Crockford recommended using the symbols *, ~, $, =, and U for extra symbols in his base 32 system. His system didn’t use U, and VIN numbers do. But we only need four more characters, so we could use *, ~, $, and =.

The drawback to this system is that it requires four new symbols. The advantage is that any change to a single character would be detected, as would any transposition of adjacent characters. This is proved here.

Related posts

Progress on the Collatz conjecture

The Collatz conjecture is for computer science what until recently Fermat’s last theorem was for mathematics: a famous unsolved problem that is very simple to state.

The Collatz conjecture, also known as the 3n+1 problem, asks whether the following function terminates for all positive integer arguments n.

    def collatz(n):
        if n == 1:
            return 1
        elif n % 2 == 0: 
            return collatz(n/2)
            return collatz(3*n+1)

In words, this says to start with a positive integer. Repeatedly either divide it by 2 if it’s even, or multiply it by 3 and add 1 if it’s odd. Will this sequence always reach 1?

The Collatz conjecture is a great example of how hard it can be to thoroughly understand even a few lines of code.

Terence Tao announced today that he has new partial results toward proving the Collatz conjecture. His blog post and arXiv paper are both entitled “Almost all Collatz orbits attain almost bounded values.”

When someone like Tao uses the word “almost,” it is a term of art, a common word used as a technical term. He is using “almost” as it is used as a technical term in number theory, which is different from the way the word is used technically in measure theory.

I get email routinely from people who believe they have a proof of the Collatz conjecture. These emails are inevitably from amateurs. The proofs are always short, elementary, and self-contained.

The contrasts with Tao’s result are stark. Tao has won the Fields Medal, arguably the highest prize in mathematics [1], and a couple dozen other awards. Amateurs can and do solve open problems, but it’s uncommon.

Tao’s proof is 48 pages of dense, advanced mathematics, building on the work of other researchers. Even so, he doesn’t claim to have a complete proof, but partial results. That is how big conjectures typically fall: by numerous people chipping away at them, building on each other’s work.

Related posts

[1] Some say the Abel prize is more prestigious because it’s more of a lifetime achievement award. Surely Tao will win that one too when he’s older.

How UTF-8 works

UTF-8 is a clever way of encoding Unicode text. I’ve mentioned it a couple times lately, but I haven’t blogged about UTF-8 per se. Here goes.

The problem UTF-8 solves

US keyboards can often produce 101 symbols, which suggests 101 symbols would be enough for most English text. Seven bits would be enough to encode these symbols since 27 = 128, and that’s what ASCII does. It represents each character with 8 bits since computers work with bits in groups of sizes that are powers of 2, but the first bit is always 0 because it’s not needed. Extended ASCII uses the left over space in ASCII to encode more characters.

A total of 256 characters might serve some users well, but it wouldn’t begin to let you represent, for example, Chinese. Unicode initially wanted to use two bytes instead of one byte to represent characters, which would allow for 216 = 65,536 possibilities, enough to capture a lot of the world’s writing systems. But not all, and so Unicode expanded to four bytes.

If you were to store English text using two bytes for every letter, half the space would be wasted storing zeros. And if you used four bytes per letter, three quarters of the space would be wasted. Without some kind of encoding every file containing English test would be two or four times larger than necessary. And not just English, but every language that can represented with ASCII.

UTF-8 is a way of encoding Unicode so that an ASCII text file encodes to itself. No wasted space, beyond the initial bit of every byte ASCII doesn’t use. And if your file is mostly ASCII text with a few non-ASCII characters sprinkled in, the non-ASCII characters just make your file a little longer. You don’t have to suddenly make every character take up twice or four times as much space just because you want to use, say, a Euro sign € (U+20AC).

How UTF-8 does it

Since the first bit of ASCII characters is set to zero, bytes with the first bit set to 1 are unused and can be used specially.

When software reading UTF-8 comes across a byte starting with 1, it counts how many 1’s follow before encountering a 0. For example, in a byte of the form 110xxxxx, there’s a single 1 following the initial 1. Let n be the number of 1’s between the initial 1 and the first 0. The remaining bits in this byte and some bits in the next n bytes will represent a Unicode character. There’s no need for n to be bigger than 3 for reasons we’ll get to later. That is, it takes at most four bytes to represent a Unicode character using UTF-8.

So a byte of the form 110xxxxx says the first five bits of a Unicode character are stored at the end of this byte, and the rest of the bits are coming in the next byte.

A byte of the form 1110xxxx contains four bits of a Unicode character and says that the rest of the bits are coming over the next two bytes.

A byte of the form 11110xxx contains three bits of a Unicode character and says that the rest of the bits are coming over the next three bytes.

Following the initial byte announcing the beginning of a character spread over multiple bytes, bits are stored in bytes of the form 10xxxxxx. Since the initial bytes of a multibyte sequence start with two 1 bits, there’s no ambiguity: a byte starting with 10 cannot mark the start of a new multibyte sequence. That is, UTF-8 is self-punctuating.

So multibyte sequences have one of the following forms.

    110xxxxx 10xxxxxx
    1110xxxx 10xxxxxx 10xxxxxx
    11110xxx 10xxxxxx 10xxxxxx 10xxxxxx

If you count the x’s in the bottom row, there are 21 of them. So this scheme can only represent numbers with up to 21 bits. Don’t we need 32 bits? It turns out we don’t.

Although a Unicode character is ostensibly a 32-bit number, it actually takes at most 21 bits to encode a Unicode character for reasons explained here. This is why n, the number of 1’s following the initial 1 at the beginning of a multibyte sequence, only needs to be 1, 2, or 3. The UTF-8 encoding scheme could be extended to allow n = 4, 5, or 6, but this is unnecessary.


UTF-8 lets you take an ordinary ASCII file and consider it a Unicode file encoded with UTF-8. So UTF-8 is as efficient as ASCII in terms of space. But not in terms of time. If software knows that a file is in fact ASCII, it can take each byte at face value, not having to check whether it is the first byte of a multibyte sequence.

And while plain ASCII is legal UTF-8, extended ASCII is not. So extended ASCII characters would now take two bytes where they used to take one. My previous post was about the confusion that could result from software interpreting a UTF-8 encoded file as an extended ASCII file.

Related posts

Excel, R, and Unicode

I received some data as an Excel file recently. I cleaned things up a bit, exported the data to a CSV file, and read it into R. Then something strange happened.

Say the CSV file looked like this:


I read the file into R with

    df <- read.csv("foobar.csv", header=TRUE)

and could access the second column as df$bar but could not access the first column as df$foo. What’s going on?

When I ran names(df) it showed me that the first column was named not foo but ï I opened the CSV file in a hex editor and saw this:

    efbb bf66 6f6f 2c62 6172 0d0a 312c 320d

The ASCII code for f is 0x66, o is 0x6f, etc. and so the file makes sense, starting with the fourth byte.

If you saw my post about Unicode the other day, you may have seen Daniel Lemire’s comment:

There are various byte-order masks like EF BB BF for UTF-8 (unused).

Aha! The first three bytes of my data file are exactly the byte-order mask that Daniel mentioned. These bytes are intended to announce that the file should be read as UTF-8, a way of encoding Unicode that is equivalent to ASCII if the characters in the file are in the range of ASCII.

Now we can see where the funny characters in front of “foo” came from. Instead of interpreting EF BB BF as a byte-order mask, R interpreted the first byte 0xEF as U+00EF, “Latin Small Letter I with Diaeresis.” I don’t know how BB and BF became periods (U+002E). But if I dump the file to a Windows command prompt, I see the first line as


with the first three characters being the Unicode characters U+00EF, U+00BB, and U+00BF.

How to fix the encoding problem with R? The read.csv function has an optional encoding parameter. I tried setting this parameter to “utf-8” and “utf8”. Neither made any difference. I looked at the R documentation, and it seems I need to set it to “UTF-8”. When I did that, the name of the first column became [1]. I don’t know what’s up with that, except FEFF is the byte order mark (BOM) I mentioned in my Unicode post.

Apparently my troubles started when I exported my Excel file as CSV UTF-8. I converted the UTF-8 file to ASCII using Notepad and everything worked. I also could have saved the file directly to ASCII. If you the list of Excel export options, you’ll first see CSV UTF-8 (that’s why I picked it) but if you go further down you’ll see an option that’s simply CSV, implicitly in ASCII.

Unicode is great when it works. This blog is Unicode encoded as UTF-8, as are most pages on the web. But then you run into weird things like the problem described in this post. Does the fault lie with Excel? With R? With me? I don’t know, but I do know that the problem goes away when I stick to ASCII.


[1] A couple people pointed out in the comments that you could use fileEncoding="UTF-8-BOM" to fix the problem. This works, though I didn’t see it in the documentation the first time. The read.csv function takes an encoding parameter that appears to be for this purpose, but is a decoy. You need the fileEncoding parameter. With enough persistence you’ll eventually find that "UTF-8-BOM" is a possible value for fileEncoding.

How fast were dead languages spoken?

A new paper in Science suggests that all human languages carry about the same amount of information per unit time. In languages with fewer possible syllables, people speak faster. In languages with more syllables, people speak slower.

Researchers quantified the information content per syllable in 17 different languages by calculating Shannon entropy. When you multiply the information per syllable by the number of syllables per second, you get around 39 bits per second across a wide variety of languages.

If a language has N possible syllables, and the probability of the ith syllable occurring in speech is pi, then the average information content of a syllable, as measured by Shannon entropy, is

-\sum_{i=1}^N p_i \log_2 p_i

For example, if a language had only eight possible syllables, all equally likely, then each syllable would carry 3 bits of information. And in general, if there were 2n syllables, all equally likely, then the information content per syllable would be n bits. Just like n zeros and ones, hence the term bits.

Of course not all syllables are equally likely to occur, and so it’s not enough to know the number of syllables; you also need to know their relative frequency. For a fixed number of syllables, the more evenly the frequencies are distributed, the more information is carried per syllable.

If ancient languages conveyed information at 39 bits per second, as a variety of modern languages do, one could calculate the entropy of the language’s syllables and divide 39 by the entropy to estimate how many syllables the speakers spoke per second.

According to this overview of the research,

Japanese, which has only 643 syllables, had an information density of about 5 bits per syllable, whereas English, with its 6949 syllables, had a density of just over 7 bits per syllable. Vietnamese, with its complex system of six tones (each of which can further differentiate a syllable), topped the charts at 8 bits per syllable.

One could do the same calculations for Latin, or ancient Greek, or Anglo Saxon that the researches did for Japanese, English, and Vietnamese.

If all 643 syllables of Japanese were equally likely, the language would convey -log2(1/637) = 9.3 bits of information per syllable. The overview says Japanese carries 5 bits per syllable, and so the efficiency of the language is 5/9.3 or about 54%.

If all 6949 syllables of English were equally likely, a syllable would carry 12.7 bits of information. Since English carries around 7 bits of information per syllable, the efficiency is 7/12.7 or about 55%.

Taking a wild guess by extrapolating from only two data points, maybe around 55% efficiency is common. If so, you could estimate the entropy per syllable of a language just from counting syllables.

Related posts

Quiet mode

When you start a programming language like Python or R from the command line, you get a lot of initial text that you probably don’t read. For example, you might see something like this when you start Python.

    Python 2.7.6 (default, Nov 23 2017, 15:49:48)
    [GCC 4.8.4] on linux2
    Type "help", "copyright", "credits" or "license" for more information.

The version number is a good reminder. I’m used to the command python bringing up Python 3+, so seeing the text above would remind me that on that computer I need to type python3 rather than simply python.

But if you’re working at the command line and jumping over to Python for a quick calculation, the start up verbiage separates your previous work from your current work by a few lines. This isn’t such a big deal with Python, but it is with R:

    R version 3.6.1 (2019-07-05) -- "Action of the Toes"
    Copyright (C) 2019 The R Foundation for Statistical Computing
    Platform: x86_64-w64-mingw32/x64 (64-bit)

    R is free software and comes with ABSOLUTELY NO WARRANTY.
    You are welcome to redistribute it under certain conditions.
    Type 'license()' or 'licence()' for distribution details.

      Natural language support but running in an English locale

    R is a collaborative project with many contributors.
    Type 'contributors()' for more information and
    'citation()' on how to cite R or R packages in publications.

    Type 'demo()' for some demos, 'help()' for on-line help, or
    'help.start()' for an HTML browser interface to help.
    Type 'q()' to quit R.

By the time you see all that, your previous work may have scrolled out of sight.

There’s a simple solution: use the option -q for quiet mode. Then you can jump in and out of your REPL with a minimum of ceremony and keep your previous work on screen.

For example, the following shows how you can use Python and bc without a lot of wasted vertical space.

    > python -q
    >>> 3+4
    >>> quit()

    > bc -q

Python added the -q option in version 3, which the example above uses. Python 2 does not have an explicit quiet mode option, but Mike S points out a clever workaround in the comments. You can open a Python 2 REPL in quiet mode by using the following.

    python -ic ""

The combination of the -i and -c options tells Python to run the following script and enter interpreter mode. In this case the script is just the empty string, so Python does nothing but quietly enter the interpreter.

R has a quiet mode option, but by default R has the annoying habit of asking whether you want to save a workspace image when you quit.

    > R.exe -q
    > 3+4
    [1] 7
    > quit()
    Save workspace image? [y/n/c]: n

I have never wanted R to save a workspace image; I just don’t work that way. I’d rather keep my state in scripts. I set R to an alias that launches R with the --no-save option.

So if you launch R with -q and --no-save it takes up no more vertical space than Python or bc.

Related posts

More bc weirdness

As I mentioned in a footnote to my previous post, I just discovered that variable names in the bc programming language cannot contain capital letters. I think I understand why: Capital letters are reserved for hexadecimal constants, though in a weird sort of way.

At first variable names in bc could only be one letter long. (This is still the case in the POSIX version of bc but not in Gnu bc.) And since A through F were reserved, you might as well make things simple and just reserve all capital letters. Maybe that was the thinking.

If you enter A at the bc prompt, you get back 10. Enter B you get 11, etc. So bc assumes a number containing a hex character is a hex number, right? Actually no. It assumes that any single letter that could be a hex number is one. But in numbers with multiple digits, it interprets letters as 9’s. Yes, 9’s.

The full story is a little more complicated. bc will work in multiple bases, and it lets you set the input and output bases with the variables ibase and obase respectively. Both are set to 10 by default. When a number contains multiple characters, letters less than ibase are interpreted as you’d expect. But letters greater than or equal to ibase are interpreted as ibase – 1.

So in base 12 in a number represented by more than one character, A means 10 and B means 11. But C, D, E, and F also mean 11. For example, A0 is 120 and BB is 143. But CC is also 143.

If ibase is set to 10, then the expression E == F evaluates to false, because 14 does not equal 15. But the expression expression EE == FF evaluates to true, because 99 equals 99.

If you set ibase to 16, then you’re in hex mode and the letters A through F behave exactly as expected.

If you want to go back to base 10, you need to set ibase to A, not 10. If you’re in hex mode, every number you enter is interpreted in hex, and so “10” is interpreted as the number we usually write as 16. In any base, setting ibase to 10 does nothing because it sets the base equal to the base.

Asimov’s question about π

In 1977, Isaac Asimov [1] asked how many terms of the slowly converging series

π = 4 – 4/3 + 4/5 – 4/7 + 4/9 – …

would you have to sum before doing better than the approximation

π ≈ 355/113.

A couple years later Richard Johnsonbaugh [2] answered Asimov’s question in the course of an article on techniques for computing the sum of series. Johnsonbaugh said you would need at least N = 3,748,630 terms.

Johnsonbaug’s answer is based on exact calculations. I wondered how well you’d do with N terms using ordinary floating point arithmetic. Would there be so much rounding error that the result is terrible?

I wrote the most direct implementation in Python, with no tricks to improve the accuracy.

    from math import pi
    s = 0
    N = 3748630
    for n in range(1, N+1):
        s += (-1)**(n+1) * 4/(2*n - 1)

I intended to follow this up by showing that you could do better by summing all the positive and negative terms separately, then doing one subtraction at the end. But the naive version actually does quite well. It’s essentially as accurate as 355/113, with both approximations having an error of 2.66764 × 10-7.

Extended precision with bc

Next, I translated my program to bc [3] so I could control the precision. bc lets you specify your desired precision with its scale parameter.

    scale = 20
    pi = 4*a(1)
    s = 0
    m = 3748630
    for (n = 1; n <= m; n++) {
        s += (-1)^(n+1) * 4/(2*n - 1)

Floating point precision is between 15 and 16 decimal places. I added more precision by setting set scale to 20, i.e. carrying out calculations to 20 decimal places, and summed the series again.

The absolute error in the series was less than the error in 355/113 in the 14th decimal place. When I used one less term in the series, its error was larger than the error in 355/113 in the 14th decimal place. In other words, the calculations suggest Johnsonbaugh found exactly the minimum number of terms needed.

I doubt Johnsonbaugh ever verified his result computationally. He doesn’t mention computer calculations in his paper [4], and it would have been difficult in 1979 to have access to the necessary hardware and software.

If he had access to an Apple II at the time, it would have run at 1 MHz. My calculation took around a minute to run on a 2 GHz laptop, so I’m guessing the same calculation would have taken a day or two on an Apple II. This assumes he could find extended precision software like bc on an Apple II, which is doubtful.

The bc programming language had been written four years earlier, so someone could have run a program like the one above on a Unix machine somewhere. However, such machines were hard to find, and their owners would have been reluctant to give up a couple days of compute time for a guest to run a frivolous calculation.

Related posts

[1] Isaac Asimov, Asimov on Numbers, 1977.

[2] Richard Johnsonbaugh, Summing an Alternating Series. The American Mathematical Monthly, Vol 86, No 8, pp.637–648.

[3] Notice that N from the Python program became m in bc. I’ve used bc occasionally for years, and didn’t know until now that you cannot use capital letters for variables in standard bc. I guess I never tried before. The next post explains why bc doesn’t allow capital letters in variable names.

[4] Johnsonbaugh’s paper does include some numerical calculations, but he only sums up 500 terms, not millions of terms, and it appears he only uses ordinary precision, not extended precision.